At day zero, a founder owns product
Congratulations! You have just started off on your startup journey. In the beginning, more often than not a founder will be the product visionary, and therefore be in charge of product. In an ideal world (and if you’re lucky!), the founder would be supported with at least a great engineer or two and a strong product designer. This team should be able to conduct some solid customer research, have a good idea what their MVP needs to be and be working like crazy to get their MVP live.
The development process is light and easily captured on a trello board or on post-its on the wall. The objectives are clear. Get the MVP live and try to get some initial customers. Of course, the shape of this team might shift a bit if it’s very technical or very design heavy but the key point is that it shouldn’t be bigger than 10 people so that communication is easy and everyone is pulling in the right direction with a clear goal.
Hiring a Head of Product
Your MVP has gone live and you are starting to get some traction. You are getting lots of feedback from early adopters and you have created an initial roadmap of work that needs to be done to improve the product. As the CEO it is becoming increasingly difficult to be available to the product team as well as running the business. Fundraising, hiring, sales amongst other things all take up time away from the product. This is a good time to bring in someone with Product expertise. Ideally a Head of Product who can take over the job of building out the initial product organisation and ensuring that the product continues to deliver for the customers and the business.
For some very strong product led CEO’s, bringing in a Head of Product can be a difficult experience - as it feels like a loss of control of a crucial part of the business. However, a CEO has a lot of hats to wear - from hiring, to fundraising, to sales, to managing people.
It’s a big job and it’s easy for the speed of product development to slow down at this point if someone is not brought into manage the product on a day to day basis. What this means is that the product team loses a key individual at just the moment when there are real customers and a need for growth that requires your product to improve.
Bringing in a Head of Product means that someone takes responsibility for that function - ensuring customers continue to be heard and the product team remains cohesive. That said, the CEO should continue to be involved in product strategy and oversight - something Steve Jobs was a master of.
Building out your product system
Your Head of Product should immediately be levelling up the information flow for your product through rigorous data analysis and customer research. That is, how is the product working? What's not getting used? What's helping it stick? What do customers find valuable? What do they want to see more of? The introduction of continuous user research and comprehensive product analytics will ensure everyone can see how the product is performing and bring their own perspectives, ideas and insights to the table.
A key part of any great product system, especially as the team grows, is the product roadmap. It becomes a critical artefact in communicating and arriving at a consensus on the product direction. In the very early days, this might just be a list of features, but with as you grow, a good product roadmap should map product features or improvements to the strategic objectives of the business, on a timeline of when they will happen for definite and also future ideas.
This certainly shouldn’t be about setting dates way into the future. Startups are far too volatile for this to be truly valuable. Long term planning has its place, as long as the roadmap acknowledges just how much plans can change.
Moving from one team to multiple empowered teams
Your company is on a tear, you have raised a big round and there is now even more to do. Not only are you exploring new product opportunities and verticals, but the existing product teams are also constantly finding ways to improve the existing products for customers. With money in the bank, you can be more aggressive with your hiring plans and begin to build out multiple product teams.
Most modern product organisations opt for a decentralised approach, with small cross-functional teams comprised of 5-10 people, that are empowered to make product decisions aligned to strategic objectives. Avoiding a top-down approach means that those closest to the customer's problems remain the ones that come up with the solutions. This unleashes creativity and ownership which in my view leads to better products.
Every member of the team strives to understand the customer with the product managers acting as a vital support mechanism to the team. Their role is to ensure that the rest of the team have a clear idea of the problem and facilitating the process towards an effective solution, whilst in turn acting as the key communication channel with the rest of the business. The Head of Product role now evolves to supporting each of these product teams, nurturing and mentoring product talent whilst being responsible and accountable for ensuring that there is consistency and cohesion across decisions and roadmaps where relevant.
Now although there may be dependencies and intimacies between these products and teams, they will also often be working to different metrics or strategic objectives. This is where OKRs can start to play a really important role. As the CEO you can support what can be a messy and confusing process by simply sharing what metrics the business needs to improve and the most important high-level strategic objectives, and then leave your product heads to figure out the best approach for doing so. As long as your strategic objectives are being hit then you know the product function is working well.
This type of organisation takes a lot of inspiration from the military and the special forces. Where small units of cross-functional teams are given a strategic mission to complete and high-level common values that allow them to react to dynamic situations on the ground.
In the second part of this series, we will talk about the different ways you can bring coordination and cohesion to your product organisation as it starts to become really big.